Last week, Odd Future singer Frank Ocean – whose major-label debut, Channel Orange, hit iTunes today – posted a long letter online in which he revealed that his first true love was another man. "By the time I realized I was in love, it was malignant," he wrote. "It was hopeless. There was no escaping, no negotiating with the feeling. No choice. It was my first love, it changed my life." Ocean is the first major star from the hip-hop world to openly discuss same-sex attraction, but he's far from the first musician to surprise fans with a revelation about his or her sexuality. Many stars (Elton John, Clay Aiken, Adam Lambert) have come out of the closet as gay, while others, like David Bowie, have later clarified or retracted similar statements. Here's a look back at some of those moments.
In a 1976 Rolling Stone cover story, Elton John told writer Cliff Jahr that he was bisexual. "There's nothing wrong with going to bed with somebody of your own sex," John said. "I think everybody's bisexual to a certain degree . . . I mean, who cares! I just think people should be very free with sex – they should draw the line at goats." The immediate impact on his career is difficult to gauge, since John's album sales had already begun slipping the previous year with the release of Rock of the Westies. But the news shocked many fans, believe it or not. "As a highly devoted Elton John fan, I regret being needlessly informed that my 'hero' is bisexual," one intolerant fan wrote to Rolling Stone after the article's publication. "The effect is shattering."
Back in 2000, Barbara Walters pressed Ricky Martin to come out in a televised interview – and he refused. But a decade later, in March 2010, the Latin singer and former Menudo star posted a message on his website: "I am proud to say that I am a fortunate homosexual man," he wrote. "I am very blessed to be who I am." Martin is currently starring in Evita on Broadway; he recently told NPR that he would have come out "a long time ago," if he knew his fans' and the media's reaction was going to be so positive.
The theatrical glam-rock singer seemed like a shoo-in to win American Idol's eighth season in 2009, which would have made him the show's first gay winner. But Lambert came in second, and didn't come out until after the finale aired. "I don't think it should be a surprise for anyone to hear I'm gay," he said in a Rolling Stone cover story. Lovesick female members of the Glambert Fan Club were devastated, but pledged their support in spite of the news.
Later that year, Lambert drew controversy with a sexually charged American Music Awards performance in which he kissed a male bassist and simulated oral sex with a male dancer. "My goal was not to piss people off, it was to promote freedom of expression and artistic freedom," he told Rolling Stone. The outspoken pop star's second LP, Trespassing, hit Number One on the Billboard charts this past spring, and Lambert recently performed onstage with Queen.
Etheridge took home a Grammy for "Ain't It Heavy," off her third record, Never Enough, in 1993 – the same year she publicly announced that she is a lesbian. Her next album, Yes, I Am, was her most commercially successful disc, and she scored yet another Grammy for the single "Come to My Window." After battling breast cancer, Etheridge made a public comeback, performing alongside Joss Stone at the 2005 Grammys. She's still racking up awards, both within the LGBTQ community and in the pop music world. Her song "I Need to Wake Up," off the An Inconvenient Truth soundtrack, earned an Academy Award in 2007.
The 'N Sync singer came out in a July 2006 People magazine cover story, in which he admitted to keeping his sexuality under wraps so as not to overshadow the boy band's popularity. In the last few years, Bass has pursued everything from acting to reality television to space flight. In 2007, he published his autobiography Out of Sync, which became a New York Times bestseller.
George Michael was arrested in Beverly Hills in 1998 for engaging in a "lewd act" with another man in a public restroom. A week later, he told a CNN interviewer that he was gay. "I don't feel any shame," Michael said. "I feel stupid and I feel reckless and weak for having allowed my sexuality to be exposed this way. But I don't feel any shame whatsoever." Michael has released two studio LPs and continued to tour the world since coming out. His latest European tour is set to launch in September.
The country singer came out in 2010, saying, "I hid everything for my music." Her career took an instant hit: Wright said that her sales dropped and she received death threats after coming out, and she lamented how few of her country peers had publically supported her. Last year, Wright married activist Lauren Blitzer in Connecticut.
R.E.M.'s frontman publicly revealed his sexual orientation in a 2001 interview with Time, but the media didn't pick up on the story until he chose to speak openly in an April 2008 issue of Spin. "It was super complicated for me in the Eighties," Stipe said. "I was totally open with the band and my family and my friends and certainly the people I was sleeping with. I thought it was pretty obvious." R.E.M. announced their amicable breakup last year after the release of their 15th studio album, Collapse Into Now.
Judas Priest frontman Rob Halford came out on MTV in February 1998. In December 2010, he challenged the notion that heavy metal is an intolerant genre in an NME interview: "There are areas of music that are more compassionate, more tolerant, more open, more accepting and more aware," he said. "What I think I have done is destroy the myth that heavy metal bands don't have that capacity." The band launched a farewell tour in 2010.
Townshend's case is different from the others on this list: In a 1990 interview with Timothy White, the Who guitarist appeared to come out of the closet. "I know how it feels like to be a woman because I am a woman," he said. "'Rough Boys' was a coming out, an acknowledgment of the fact that I'd had a gay life." But Townshend – who was married to a woman at the time – clarified his remarks in a 1994 interview with Playboy, saying, "I talked about my 'gay life,' which – I meant – was actually about the friends that I've had who are gay … The interviewer kind of dotted the t's and crossed the i's and assumed that I was coming out, which I wasn't at all." Townshend's initial statement caused much confusion among fans, and it continues to be quoted (often out of context) to this day.
The Bloc Party singer spent years avoiding reporters' questions about his sexuality, until finally revealing he is gay in a 2010 interview with Butt magazine. "My parents are super-Catholic, and they come from a culture in Nigeria where there weren't any visible gay people who were out and were happy," Okereke said. "My parents are getting older and I didn't like the idea that they could possibly die without knowing something that is a big part of my life." Bloc Party's latest LP, Four, is due out this August.
Eighties pop star Tiffany accidentally outed New Kids on the Block's Jonathan Knight on a January 2011 episode of Bravo's Watch What Happens Live – saying she dated Knight decades ago, and that he "became gay later." Knight subsequently released a statement maintaining that he had always been open about his sexuality. "Apparently the prerequisite to being a gay public figure is to appear on the cover of a magazine with the caption 'I am gay,'" Knight wrote. "I apologize for not doing so if this is what was expected!"
Former Savage Garden frontman Darren Hayes came out in June 2006, when he married his boyfriend Richard Cullen in London. "One of my biggest worries was that these women who bought my records would think that I had deceived them," he told People the following year. "On the whole, it hasn't made a difference. Of course, there's been the occasional homophobic letter, but I can count them on one hand."
Singer-songwriter Brandi Carlile commented on her sexuality in an interview with L.A. Times pop critic Ann Powers after the release of 2009's Give Up the Ghost. "I hope that somewhere in Small Town, USA, a 15-year-old kid looks to me as a role model the way I looked at the Indigo Girls and Elton John as role models," she said. "I hope they also recognize that the reason why I don't have to have a lot of formality around it, the reason why I don't have to wear it on my sleeve and make a spectacle of it, is because there were people before me who paved the way so I wouldn't have to." Carlile released her latest album, Bear Creek, in June.
"One thing I've found of people in the public eye, either you're a womanizer or you've got to be gay," Aiken told Rolling Stone in 2003. "Since I'm neither one of those, people are completely concerned about me." Five years later, the season two American Idol runner-up posed with his newborn son Parker on the cover of People and revealed he was, in fact, gay. The Claymates, Aiken's mostly female fans, have remained devoted through five full-length records and nine tours. He came in second place on The Celebrity Apprentice earlier this year.
Kathryn Dawn Lang's 25-year recording career began with a Patsy Cline tribute band that she started in Canada. She went on to score a string of Grammys, and in 1992, she came out in the Advocate. Her most recent album, Sing It Loud, hit stores in 2011 – and in 2010, Lang landed a guest spot on Glee, crooning "You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch" in a Christmas episode.
"I was a bit worried, but now I don't really give a shit," Lady Sovereign told lesbian magazine Diva in 2010, when she came out. The diminutive British rapper and former Jay-Z protégé claimed her publicists had instructed her to keep her sexuality a secret earlier in her career. Her second album, 2009's Jigsaw, was independently released on her Midget Records label.
David Bowie made headlines by coming out in a 1972 interview with British music magazine Melody Maker. "I'm gay and always have been," he said. "Even when I was David Jones." His proclamation didn't exactly hurt sales for The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars that year, and Bowie went on to become one of the decade's most successful artists. But he went on to voice regret over his famous statement in a 1983 interview with Rolling Stone. "The biggest mistake I ever made was telling that Melody Maker writer that I was bisexual," he said. "Christ, I was so young then. I was experimenting."